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Thomas Broderick

ACT English: Ambiguous Pronouns

Well, Magooshers, it’s time for another installment of my (non) patented ACT English advice. Today’s topic is ambiguous pronouns. To get us started, here’s an example, something one of my students in sophomore English may have written years ago:

Mark decided to go out for coffee. At the coffee shop he ran into his old friend, Steve. He’s such a great guy. The two….

And that’s where I stopped reading, at least for a moment or two as I got out my red pen and circled ‘He’s’. You see, even though the student probably thought Steve was a great guy, the student had fallen into the ambiguous pronoun trap and didn’t know it.

In this article I want to go over ambiguous pronouns, and how to avoid them on the ACT English Test. So if you can stick with me over the next few paragraphs, I’ll help you ensure that no pronoun, ambiguous or otherwise, ever tricks you up again.

A Short Pronoun Primer

Before going further, refresh your knowledge of pronouns by reading SAT Writing: Everything You Need to Know About Pronouns. In this article is a lot of good information you can’t afford to miss. Below I’ve summarized some key information relevant to our ambiguous pronoun journey.

As you (hopefully) already know, pronouns are nouns that refer to people, places, things, or ideas that have already been mentioned by their proper names. Pronouns fall into two groups: singular and plural. As the names suggests, singular pronouns (ex: he, she, I, yourself) refer to one person or thing. Plural pronouns (ex: they, them, those, theirs) refer to two or more people or things.

Most Importantly: A pronoun must always match its antecedent. An antecedent is the thing or things which the pronoun replaces in the sentence/paragraph.

What Makes an Ambiguous Pronoun?

First of all, no pronoun is ambiguous on its own. Only when a writer (usually a young writer, but it happens even to the best of us) doesn’t make the pronoun/antecedent relationship clear. To get us started, let’s review the example at the beginning of this article. The passage starts off talking about Mark, which means that Mark is the subject of the paragraph. The standard rules of English dictate that any ‘he’ or ‘his’ in the paragraph refer to Mark.

Yet Steve appears in the second sentence. Suddenly, the paragraph is about the actions of both men. A writer can no longer use ‘he’ or ‘his,’ but must use ‘Mark’s’ or ‘Steve’s’ to refer to either man.

You don’t have to write an entire paragraph to make an ambiguous pronoun mistake. Here is an example of a single sentence with an ambiguous pronoun:

Mark met Steve after he had dinner.

Though the writer might know that Mark was the person who had dinner, the presence of two names in the sentence makes it impossible to use ‘he’ as a pronoun. Here’s the correct way to write the sentence:

Mark met Steve after Mark had dinner.

A Quick Aside: Though the sentence above is technically correct, and would be a correct answer on the ACT English Test, is isn’t the best way convey information. If you’re focused on improving the flow of your writing, take note of the better version below:

After Mark had dinner, he met Steve.

Now, doesn’t that sentence just sound nicer? 🙂

Catching Ambiguous Pronouns on the ACT

Below are the steps you should follow when answering ACT English Test questions regarding pronouns.

Step 1: Match the pronoun to its antecedent. Even if you immediately catch a mistake, don’t skip any steps. There may be more going on than meets the eye.

Step 2: Determine if the antecedent and pronoun are both singular or plural. If one is singular, and the other plural, you’ve caught the mistake.

Step 3: If there is a singular/plural mismatch, there is one final thing to keep in mind. There is such a thing as ‘non-gendered singular pronouns.’ Below is an example that includes a common mistake.

Dear parents,

I am so happy to have your child in my class this year. I am sure they will have a wonderful time as we learn about all sorts of fun things. 

Now, since this letter is going out to parents of boys and girls, the writer can’t specifically say ‘he’ or ‘she’. Also, the antecedent (your child) is singular, making the pronoun ‘they’ automatically incorrect. That’s why when correcting this sentence, ‘he or she’ is the correct answer.

Final Thoughts on Ambiguous Pronouns

Instead of just wishing you luck on the ACT English Test, I want to leave you with a few more solid pieces of advice that will help you out on ACT Test day. Enjoy!

  • Use ‘he’ or ‘she’ only when referring to people. I know some people call their cars/boats/whatever ‘she,’ but the correct pronoun is ‘it.’
  • It is perfectly fine to use ‘one’ or ‘you’ when writing about someone else. Yet once you choose which word to use in your writing, you can’t switch back and forth.
  • If the underlined pronoun has no antecedent in the sentence, the correct answer is just about always the proper noun.
  • When the underlined pronoun is unclear, the correct answer is usually the one that provides a proper noun as part of the phrase.

Last, but certainly not least, the best way to develop your pronoun savvy is to READ! Find some time to get your head out of a study book and put it into a good novel or short story. As pronouns appear, take note of the pronoun/antecedent agreement. Besides studying and take practice tests, this trick is one of the best ways to improve your ACT English Test score.

Till next time, Magooshers.

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About Thomas Broderick

Thomas spent four years teaching high school English, social studies, and ACT preparation in Middle Tennessee. Now living in Northern California, he is excited to share his knowledge and experience with Magoosh's readers. In his spare time Thomas enjoys writing short fiction and hiking in the Sonoma foothills.

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